By Giuseppe Verdi
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Directed by John Copley

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" is a mainstay of the operatic repertoire for good reason: The music is glorious, and the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (based on the play "La Dame aux camélias" by Alexandre Dumas fils) is both engrossing and touching. In short, it's an operatic masterpiece. San Francisco Opera elicits its glories in a production conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by John Copley and featuring vocal excellence in all roles.

At the heart of this production is American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson as Violetta, the doomed courtesan in mid-19th century Paris. Ever since beginning her career with the SFO's Merola Opera program for young professional singers in 1981, Swenson has thrilled audiences with her brilliant coloratura. Over the years, her singing has taken on some pleasingly darker shadings, yet the high notes are as sure as ever. Moreover, her careful attention to dynamics and emotions makes her one of the world's leading sopranos.

She's well-paired with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, making his professional SFO debut as Alfredo after training with Merola Opera in 1988. He has an ardent, lyrical style throughout his range. He doesn't always have the vocal heft to project in a house as large as San Francisco's, but one can expect it to develop with time. American mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, another Merola graduate, is notable as Flora. Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is an imposing Germont, Alfredo's father. His Act 2 scene with Violetta, when he asks her to give up Alfredo for the sake of his family, is breathtaking, while his remorse in Act 4 is moving.

The supporting cast and San Francisco Opera Chorus (directed by Ian Robertson) are all excellent. Except for a few times when it nearly covers the singers, the orchestra is outstanding under Summers' baton.

Although this is the fifth time (after 1987, 1991, 1995 and 2001) that the Copley production has been seen in San Francisco, it's still impressive. John Conklin's sets, complemented by Thomas J. Munn's lighting, and David Walker's costumes reflect the changes in Violetta's life, starting with brilliant red costumes (except for Violetta's white dress) and elaborate furnishings in the Act 1 party scene. Act 2, set in the country house where Violetta and Alfredo have gone, is simpler and brighter, reflecting Violetta's happiness. Act 3 at Flora's house is again elaborate, but Violetta is in black, reflecting her grief at having to give up Alfredo. Gray is the dominant color in Act 4, set in a sparsely furnished, stripped-down bedroom of the dying +Violetta's house.

All of the musical and artistic elements of this production add up to grand opera at its grandest.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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20 May 2014